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From the archives: Why Pete Seeger is one hot octogenarian

In this May 5, 2006 file photo, Pete Seeger talks during an interview in Beacon, N.Y.

Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

This article - Why Pete Seeger is one hot octogenarian - originally appeared in The Globe and Mail in April, 2006. We're giving readers access to it again after the death, at age 94 Monday, of one of the music world's cultural icons.

It's a very great mistake

to let pessimism get you down.

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- Pete Seeger, 1972

'This is Pete Seeger."

And so it is, 86 years young (87 on May 3) at the end of a telephone line stretching from Toronto to the Hudson River town of Beacon, N.Y., which Seeger and Toshi, his wife of almost 63 years, have called home since 1949.

The voice sounds like Pete Seeger, at once light, authoritative, engaging -- instantly familiar, in short, to anyone who's ever attended a Seeger concert and been exhorted to sing along to Cotton Fields or a Bantu ballad, or who's heard his rousing "split tenor" on the hundreds of recordings he's made since 1941, or caught him on TV shows like Sesame Street, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and Canada's own Singalong Jubilee.

"Legend," of course, is a much overused word nowadays, indiscriminately applied to everyone from Zsa Zsa Gabor to Neil Diamond.

But it's an accurate descriptor for Seeger, draping as easily on his tall, lanky frame as his famous five-string banjo drapes over his shoulder. If there's a more beloved ex-Communist in the world, I don't know his (or her) name. Karl Marx wrote a pretty groovy book in The Communist Manifesto but Pete Seeger wrote If I Had a Hammer, Turn! Turn! Turn! and Where Have All the Flowers Gone.

Seeger confesses he doesn't do much singing these days, at least not in front of large crowds. He says he "strained [his] voice all sorts of ways" through decades of touring. "I just stretched out my neck and shouted when I should have been using my abdomen more. Umpteen versions of Wimoweh do take their toll, you know."

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True, he did a concert a year ago in Beacon with Arlo Guthrie, son of the late Woody Guthrie -- you know: the guy who wrote This Land Is Your Land, Pretty Boy Floyd and Pastures of Plenty -- whom Seeger first met in 1939 in New York and accompanied on a, well . . . legendary road trip a year later. "It was a fine evening. We did old songs we knew very well, so it wasn't that onerous. We started with Midnight Special."

At the mention of Midnight Special -- a composition by yet another famous friend from his youth, Huddie Ledbetter, aka Leadbelly -- he pulls a characteristic Seegerian manoeuvre: He sort of slides, unprompted, into a related topic. "Y'know, the best version of Midnight Special I ever was involved in was in Canada, at McGill University. There was an audience of maybe 150 and it kept getting better and better as it rolled along. Really great."

And when was this?

"Oh, about 50 years ago."

Even if Seeger is currently husbanding his voice, others are happily singing out of his songbook, most notably Bruce Springsteen whose latest CD, We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, (in stores today) features 15 tunes that Pete has performed over the years. ("Does anyone ever call you Peter?" "My wife.") The Boss, 30 years Seeger's junior, has been a friend of Seeger's since the mid-1990s, and first recorded Seeger's adaptation of We Shall Overcome for a two-CD tribute in 1997. Of course, in recent years, Springsteen has cast himself as a populist, politicized troubadour in the mould of Guthrie and Seeger, especially so in 2004 when he performed several concerts in support of John Kerry's candidacy against George W. Bush. The failure of that effort reportedly put the Boss in a depressive funk for several months. Did Springsteen seek Seeger's counsel, since Seeger certainly has known his share of sorrow yet been able to "dress himself in happiness to stagger about this agonized world?"

"No, he did not," Seeger avers. In fact, he didn't know New Jersey's second favourite son -- Frank Sinatra is probably the first -- was preparing We Shall Overcome "until I heard about it in the press" earlier this year. Springsteen, he says, finally "called me up about two weeks ago and said, 'I've done this record, and we're callin' it The Seeger Project [sic], and it was a lotta fun and we did it all in my home in Rumson [N.J.].' "

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Seeger has since heard the record and likes it. "I was really quite proud that he did it on his own." When it's mentioned that Overcome has much lusher palette and boom-boxier sound than any Seeger recording (14 musicians playing guitars, banjo, tuba, trumpet, violin and accordion can do that), Seeger laughs in agreement. "I wonder what Dan Emmett would think of Old Dan Tucker [the album's lead track]. It's pretty fantastic."

Emmett, he explains, was the one who first popularized the story of Tucker, a rowdy man who "washed his face with a fryin' pan and combed his hair with a wagon wheel." In fact, "it was No. 1 in the Top 40 of 1844." Again, Seeger does a little sideways shuffle: "Emmett wrote Dixie, y'know. He was a Union man, but here's this song that became the anthem of the Confederacy [during the American Civil War, 1861-65]."

Seeger, of course, was playing "world music" well before the term was invented or came to be a standalone section in the neighbourhood record store. Puerto Rican and Cuban revolutionary songs (including the famous Guantanamera), Indian hymns, African chants, Indonesian lullabyes, Caribbean melodies -- he's done 'em all and then some, usually (in concert at least) seducing the audience into participating since music, to his way of thinking, has always been a social thing, the performer more ennobling enabler than showbiz star. In fact, he's often called himself "a tool for the song" and during the 1960s and 1970s the parchment body of his banjo sported the message "This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender" -- a riff, of course, on the famous slogan "This machine kills fascists" that Woody Guthrie inscribed on his guitar.

Seeger credits his father "for getting me into all this." A comparative musicologist, Charles Seeger started the music department at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1912, but when his pacifist and socialist leanings began to irritate trustees, he went on an extended sabbatical from which he never returned, eventually ending up as head of musical theory at the Juilliard School in New York, where Pete was born. His mother, Constance de Clyver Edson, was a musician and teacher, too, as was his stepmother, Ruth Crawford Seeger. (Constance and Charles divorced in 1927.) Pete got immersed in the folk idiom around 1935 or 1936 in large part because his father and stepmother had been hired to transcribe the thousands of folks songs that John and Alan Lomax were recording throughout the American south for the Library of Congress. By late 1939, Seeger had dropped out of his second year at Harvard (a scholarship student, he was majoring in sociology with an eye to becoming a journalist) and was working as a $60-a-month assistant to Alan Lomax in Washington. In the spring, Woody Guthrie invited a 20-year-old Pete to accompany him on a road trip to Texas, where Guthrie's wife and baby were staying with relatives.

Their meandering sojourn came to a halt, at least temporarily, in Oklahoma City, where Guthrie's car was repossessed. Guthrie returned to New York while Seeger, a banjo strapped over his shoulder, spent the remainder of 1940 hitchhiking to Montana, then south into Alabama, Georgia, Florida and Tennessee.

"Woody taught me a few songs that would bring in a few nickels or dimes," Seeger recalls. "He also gave me advice about surviving on the road. . . . He said, 'If you're hungry, go into a bar, order a nickel beer and sip it as slow as you can. After a while, someone's bound to notice that banjo and come up and say, 'Kid, can you play that?' " At that point, Guthrie recommended that Seeger shrug non-committally and then go back to nursing his beer, because "eventually, somebody's going to say, 'Kid, I'll give you a quarter right now if you play that thing.' "

Seeger says he'll be bringing his banjo to Toronto in mid-June when he puts in a much-anticipated appearance at the sixth annual ideaCity conference. Sometimes described as a "Mecca for lateral thinking," the ideaCity usually runs over three days and features more than 40 speakers, each of whom is asked to talk unscripted for about 20 minutes, then chat with the audience.

For Seeger, who once said that his primary skill as an entertainer has been "a knack for knowing the right song for the right audience," this should be a cakewalk. But beyond the one or two songs he'll perform, he admits he's been giving his presentation some thought. "Without giving too much away, I'm gonna be a devil's advocate in a kind of way. I'll not be presenting ideas for toys that rich people can spend their money on, but talking about how we can save the world from collapse in the next 50 or 100 years."

If that sounds heavy, well, Seeger insists it won't be. "You see, if there's still a world here in 100 years, it's not going to have been saved by One Big Thing. One Big Things can be co-opted and corrupted and turned to mush. . . . All my life I've been aware that there's a whole class of very rich people who control the country and this has been going on a long, long while. . . . But what are they going to do about tens of millions of little things, good things? Like maybe some mothers or teachers and children who start growing a healthy garden in a vacant, ugly inner-city lot. . . ." Or his brother John, a former high-school principal and pacifist, still alive at 92, who likes to ponder the question: "How can I cure a kid of being a bully?"

"Oh, June's sure turning into a busy month for me," Seeger sighs. But there's always time, it seems, for Canada, which put out the welcome mat for him in 1955 after he was held in contempt of Congress for refusing to discuss his politics at the House Un-American Activities Committee. In the Great White North, he found work at concerts, TV shows and the National Film Board. "A wonderful country, Canada. And to have survived so near Uncle Sam." At this he recalls visiting a school in Connecticut 10 years ago and meeting an African-Canadian student. Seeger asked him: "In a word, what's the difference between the United States and Canada?" The student replied: "I can't give you a word but I can give you a sentence: Canada's Uncle Sam's poor relative but with a better health-care system."

"I thought that was a pretty good answer," Seeger says with a chuckle.

Editor's note: This article was originally published on April 25, 2006.

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